Writing a Story on #MeToo Was an Honor … and a Challenge

Thursday July 5, 2018 | Filed under:

Below is a guest blog from Sara Lavenduski, senior editor of ASI’s Advantages magazine:

The #MeToo movement is an international movement against sexual harassment and assault. Sara gave women in the promo industry an opportunity to share their opinions and challenges of gender inequality in the workplace. She encouraged and empowered women to collectively find a voice.

Like so many, I wasn’t shocked at what was exposed by the #MeToo movement last fall. This is what astonished me: the sheer breadth of very powerful people who were called out and fired in disgrace, along with the number of sexual assault victims who finally felt empowered enough to speak out (and even name those who did them harm). The accused were so high in the celebrity stratosphere that they seemed untouchable. But with #MeToo, all that changed.

As the aftershocks continued into this year, it was obvious that the #MeToo movement wasn’t a flash in the pan. And so at an Advantages staff meeting, the idea was presented for a cover story that would tell the experience of women working in the promotional products industry, and uncover the gender-based challenges these women have faced in building their careers. And I was asked to write it.

Picturing the #MeToo movement and the flood of emotions and reactions it elicited all over the world, I immediately had two conflicting thoughts. The initial one was eagerness to give the women of our industry the floor to speak out about their experiences. The enthusiasm was immediately followed by apprehension, knowing what a hot-button topic this is, made all the more intense by #MeToo.

I asked myself, Would any women in the industry want to go on the record for such an article? And how would readers react once it was published?

But I knew that the situation is too important to ignore just because it’s uncomfortable to talk about, and I felt like I owed it to the women of this industry, whom ASI and Advantages serve, to give it my best shot. I came to the realization that I, as a female working on behalf of the promo industry, had an obligation to give women the opportunity to speak out. After all, isn’t that the whole point of #MeToo – to stop sweeping uncomfortable situations under the rug and pretending they didn’t happen? To stand together in solidarity and commit to change?

So with that rallying cry in my ears, I started asking industry women to contribute to this piece … and I hit a wall. Some politely declined from the outset. Others expressed concern about our motivations and angle, which I completely understood; if the roles had been switched, I would have asked the same questions. I promised them that it wasn’t going to be a click-bait piece. I promised I would focus on intrinsic, day-to-day workplace challenges and wouldn’t mine personal anecdotes for sensationalism’s sake. Still a few couldn’t be moved, and my initial doubts started creeping back. Would I find anyone who would talk to me? This project hinged on these women trusting me with their experiences.

But then I received my first (very eager) agreement from a female industry veteran to share her experiences. From there, the story gained momentum. By the end of my research process, I had a dozen women willing to share a vast diversity of unique and interesting experiences and opinions that made for a rich, well-rounded story.

It was everything I had hoped for and more, because they were more open about their experiences than I had originally expected them to be.

After conducting hours of interviews and sifting through 30 pages of single-spaced notes, what I found most concerning is that insidious gender inequality is still too-frequent. It takes the form of a seemingly throwaway comment about wearing a low-cut top to make the sale. It’s glaring condescension when a woman picks up the phone. It’s indifference toward a woman who wants to prospect and build her book of business. It’s dealing with passive aggression from other female colleagues in a competitive sales environment. All these instances, and a myriad of others, chip away at a woman’s confidence and impact her career.

Writing this story helped me feel less isolated in my own experience. Prior to my time at ASI, I’ve personally seen women given difficult accounts to keep them busy and out of their male colleagues’ way. I’ve seen female infighting that made me so uncomfortable I could barely stand it. I’ve been berated on the phone, as the person on the other line reminded me that they have vastly more experience than I do. I’ve heard comments that sound harmless at the time, but upon second thought weren’t appropriate at all. Like so many others, in those instances I’ve chosen not to make waves and hoping they will stop. But they usually don’t.

For too long, women have gone along to get along. They fear losing the sale, the account, the job. They don’t want to risk retaliation from colleagues or clients. They don’t want a black mark next to their names as someone difficult to deal with, who doesn’t play nicely with others.

Talking with these women in the promotional products industry, it’s clear that change is happening. Women are banding together and finding their collective voice to say “Enough is enough.” They’re encouraging and empowering each other through the peaks and valleys of the sales process, business ownership and building a career they can be proud of.

My heartfelt thanks to all the women who contributed to this piece: Aimee, Anita, Britney, Kate, Kathy, Kim, Megan, Nina, Renya, Reyna, Sarah and Vicki. Your strength and courage were amazing to behold, as you trusted me to present your stories fairly and effectively.

If this story does just one thing – remind women of this industry that they’re not alone in their experiences, and they have peers who stand in solidarity with them – we will have achieved what we set out to do. I hope we’ve accomplished that.

– Sarah Lavenduski ASI’s senior editor of Advantages magazine